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Right Turn
Posted at 05:10 PM ET, 03/16/2011

Does a late start in the Iowa caucus matter?

That’s the question I put to some Iowans who’ve been through many caucus years. The short answer is no. A longtime caucus-watcher and political science professor at Drake University, Art Sanders, told me by phone, that one reason for the “delays in getting started was the need to see what would happen in the 2010 election,” and therefore assess the composition of Congress and Obama’s standing for the next two years.

The Ames straw poll, a traditional preseason event for the caucuses, is five months away. Most of the presumed candidates haven’t officially declared and some say they won’t decide until the summer. (Summer deciders will then have a built-in excuse to sidestep Iowa entirely.) But that doesn’t mean the race hasn’t started. There was a candidate forum last week. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is there this week. Newt Gingrich has become a familiar face. And Tim Pawlenty, perhaps the most conscientious of the about-to-be candidates recently hired Eric Woolson, Huckabee’s Iowa manager in 2008.

Each time around someone — usually in the bored press corps — identifies a new phenomenon that’s going to shake everything up in Iowa. Last time it was a short timeframe between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Iowa will be less important! Well, actually it vaulted Mike Huckabee into contention, who later split the conservative votes in South Carolina, handing the nomination to the less-than-stalwart conservative Sen. John McCain. This time the late start is supposedly helpful to those who can’t afford to burn through a lot of cash early. However, then those candidates are going to have to raise more money in a shorter period of time. The law of unintended consequences is alive and well in Iowa.

So this preseason caucus period is much the same as in past years. Those who want to run may not have declared but they are visiting quite a bit. As Sanders commented on Newt Gingrich, “If he wasn’t considering it [a run in Iowa], he sure loves the state.” And no matter what the result the Ames straw poll, Woolson said in a phone interview today, it “will be a story.” If Iowa frontrunners Huckabee and Mitt Romney finish in the top slots, whoever is third will get a headline, “A new contender in Iowa!” And if either Huckabee or Romney don’t win, then, by gosh, “Frontrunner in trouble!” will be the headline.

As for Romney, one Iowa operative says it would be “awkward” if he skipped Iowa. He recalled that Rudy Giuliani said “ ‘Why don’t we skip Iowa,’ and then said, ‘Why don’t we skip New Hampshire’ ” and then was out of the race. Romney’s situation would be even more difficult since he announced he will participate in Iowa.

Sanders suggested Romney might nominally run, as McCain did in 2008, but focus his energies on New Hampshire. He joked, “if he can convince enough people not to pay attention” to his results in Iowa, that might save him from a fatal defeat. He said bluntly, “If he tries hard and loses, it’s bad.” Sanders is skeptical of Romney’s prospects. “Last time he tried to run as a social conservative and that didn’t work out.” As for the race in general, Sanders said, “The elephant in the room has to have a credible answer to [RomneyCare] but he doesn’t.” His best chance, Sanders believes, is if the other candidates divide up the votes. In the end, however, Sanders concluded, “I don’t see how he gets past that issue in a Republican primary.”

Our first indication as to how the candidates will stack up in the Ames straw poll. It’s a small cross-section of caucus voters, but it’s an important test run, says Woolson. “It’s a logistical exercise, like UPS. You have to get 3,000 packages to one spot on a hot summer day. And then you have to get 30,000 packages to one spot on a cold February night.” If a county chairman promises to bring 10 voters to the straw poll and shows up with 50, the candidate knows he’s getting solid help there. If, however, the chairman promises 50 and shows up with 10, there is work to be done.

Traditionally, Christian evangelicals make up about 60 percent of the voters who turn out for the February caucuses. That raises problems for a number of candidates. Sanders noted Gingrich’s personal problems. His confession and religious conversion might, Sanders said, “be enough to satisfy some people. But you’re running in a primary with a lot of people who are just as right who don’t have this issue.”

As for Barbour, Sanders recognized his lobbyist background may be problematic. He advised, “It will be an issue. The best he can hope is to embrace it. He can’t run against himself. Romney did that last time. It rarely works.”And in fact Barbour has been doing that, trying to argue that being a Washington insider will help him get things done.

Who’s doing the best job? Sanders argued that Tim Pawlenty is doing it right. “He has been here all along, spending money and building an organization. And he’s made major mistakes.” It remains to be seen whether Pawlenty’s slow-and-steady approach can beat better-known candidates and excite the base.

All of this said, it is still early. The field is not set. And, so long as Obama is under attack for non-leadership (one activist grumbled to me, “And there’s the president, filling out his bracket”), candidates can methodically build their Iowa organizations — or think up a good excuse to skip the caucuses altogether.

By  |  05:10 PM ET, 03/16/2011

 
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